Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Recent Watches: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)

Despite being a film totally without any interesting elements, 2003’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was one of the biggest horror films of the year. Since Platinum Dunes obviously made the first one to be as commercial as possible, it’s unsurprising that they would produce a sequel. There were two problems through. First off, Dimension Films threatened to buy the rights to the name from Michael Bay, delaying production while more money was allocate to retain ownership. A bigger issue was a narrative one. The remake concluded by cutting Leatherface’s arm off, making future chainsawing difficult. While there were solutions around this – the comic books gave him a hook hand – the producers decided to make a prequel instead. With its uninspired subtitle in hand, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” sawed its way into theaters in 2006.

In 1969, the slaughterhouse and meat packing plant that has supported a rural Texas town shuts down. This directly affects the Hewitt family, especially Thomas, the hulking youngest child with a deformed face. Knowing he’s being fired, he murders his boss, steals a chainsaw, and heads home. Afterwards, his adoptive brother Hoyt murders the town sheriff and assumes his role. Meanwhile, a quartet of teens are headed towards California, the boys about to be deployed to Vietnam. Along the way, they encounter the Hewitt brood, both of them falling victim to an earlier chapter of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Being a prequel, “The Beginning” attempts to lend a mythic quality to several key moments. When the future Leatherface first discovers his chainsaw, triumphant music blares. The creation of his first flesh mask is comparable to Bruce Wayne putting on the cape in “Batman Begins.” A mildly clever moment has Leatherface literally being born on the slaughterhouse floor. After hearing about it for years, there is something mildly satisfying about seeing the meat packing plant that closes and forces the family towards cannibalism.

Yet specifically being a prequel to the shitty remake saddles the film with all sorts of stupid mythology. Yes, this Leatherface has a facial deformity. Before donning his skin mask, he wears some weird Hannibal Lector get-up. Yes, he’s bullied as a kid, making his murders specific acts of vengeance. The prequel even takes the pains to set up minor events seen in the remake. We see Hoyt get his sheriff suit and loose his front teeth. We see Monty looses his legs, in one of the script’s dumbest decision. The family’s cannibalism is explained as a habit Hoyt developed as a POW in Korea. The prequel clinically sets out to resolve every element introduced in the last one.

I said some pretty negative things about Marcus Nispel’s direction in the remake. That it was calculated and too slick. Jonathan Liebesman’s work on the prequel makes me wish I could take it back. Liesbesman’s direction is shaky, to the point of nausea. It’s not just the action scenes that shake, like when victims are running from Leatherface or during either of the film’s multiple car wrecks. Scenes of characters just sitting around and talking feature photography that spins all over the damn place. I don’t know what the point of direction like this is. It doesn’t make the movie feel immediate or gritty. It just makes the film feel unprofessional. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to be able to clearly see what the hell I’m watching.

The violence in the remake was grimy and sadistic, focused on the suffering of Leatherface’s victims. The prequel goes all in on this. The psychological torture Hoyt showed off last time becomes physical torture, as he repeatedly beats a victim with a club. Extended sequences are devoted to the chained up women, crying and panicking. Leatherface beats in kneecaps, yanks bones from flesh, and cuts a face off, all shown in sickening detail. Once the chainsaw comes out, the film delights in limbs being sawed away, bodies being cut in two or run through. There’s even a sickening suggestion of rape. Listen, I like gore in horror movies. But this is just mean, cruelty for its own sake, without flare or art.

The teenage victims in the “Texas Chainsaw” remake were indistinct, underwear model worthy performers with perfect abs, tight clothes, and glistening skin. That’s another trend the remake is disinterested in breaking. Despite being set in the late sixties, these kids look utterly modern. Matt Bomer’s Eric has perfectly trimmed facial hair. Taylor Handley’s Dean looks right out of a CW show, boyish and toned. Diora Baird’s Bailey is introduced in her underwear and spends most of the movie in lingered upon shorts. Jordanna Brewster’s Chrissie wears skin tight jeans and bends over frequently. If it sounds like I’m focusing too much on the actor’s physical appearances, forgive me. There’s nothing interesting about their personalities. Baird spends the nearly the whole movie weeping. Brewster doesn’t go mad like Marylin Burns. Instead, she remains defiant to the end, acting too much like a self-aware bad ass. The boys are both overly macho, thin sketches. There’s no reason to care about any of them.

Despite rarely bothering to make the story feel like its set in the late sixties, the script constantly references the Vietnam War. Eric is a veteran and ready to be deployed again. Dean, his younger brother, has been drafted but plans to flee to Mexico. When Eric discovers this, he’s aghast. (There’s also a subplot about some Hell’s Angels, which feels less like something the actual sixties and more like a sixties exploitation movie.) Hoyt uses this fact as an excuse to torture both boys. He drops lines about “staying the course” and freedom not being free. Wait a minute… “The Beginning” came out in 2006, right in the middle of George W. Bush’s presidency. Is the film trying to make a point about the Iraq War? Is it comparing the sadistic Hoyt and the slaughterer Leatherface to the second Bush administration? If so, this isn’t defined into a clear point. It’s just another unsatisfying aspect of the movie, lingering in the air.

If there’s any joys to “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” it’s in seeing R. Lee Ermey ham it up. Though the character is deeply unpleasant and wholly sadistic, Ermey’s glib sarcasm and long speeches are at least compelling. He’s certainly far more interesting then the rest of the undefined clan. The prequel includes the dinner scene excluded from the remake. It even has the heroine leaping through a window. While that’s kind of interesting to see, compared to the madness of the same scene in the original, it’s so stale. The Hewitts are too calm, their victims’ too comatose. Okay, there’s also a mildly funny scene where a big fat woman is used to block a door.

There’s another reason following up the remake with a prequel was a mistake. The audience already knows the ending. Despite teasing Chrissie’s escapes, she too is murdered by Leatherface. Everyone is dead, except for the sadistic cannibals. It’s such a needlessly downbeat, nihilistic ending that not even John Larroquette reappearing as the narrator can perk me up. The prequel only grossed half of the remake’s total. Since Platinum Dunes is only interested in profits, they did not feel the need to continue the story. The script hints at further victims by giving us Leatherface’s total body count. Yet the prequel being so determined to set up the remake leaves little meat on the bone. “The Beginning” is an ugly, senseless movie, with no heart or originality. It can’t even satisfy as a brain dead slasher flick. As bad as the remake was, the prequel is somehow much worst. [2/10]

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